September 24, 2016

The editor fights — about punctuation... !

From a NYT article about the longtime Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb:
He and [Toni] Morrison often bicker about commas — he loves them, she uses them sparingly. “I am right and he is wrong,” she said in an email. “He uses commas grammatically. I deploy them musically.” He usually wins, she noted.

Mr. Gottlieb and Robert Caro, the author of “The Power Broker,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, and an ongoing, multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, fight about semicolons, which Mr. Caro finds indispensable, and Mr. Gottlieb uses only as a last resort. Often, their shouting matches erupted into the hallways of Knopf’s offices, when one of them slammed the door and stormed out.

“He would always say, ‘Bob Caro has a terrible temper.’ The truth is, we both have a terrible temper,” said Mr. Caro.... “He’s willing to spend an entire morning fighting over whether something should be a period or a semicolon.”
Here's Gottlieb's memoir: "Avid Reader: A Life."

29 comments:

coupe said...

commas, are like, oxygen...

T J Sawyer said...

But links must go to URLs!

Ann Althouse said...

Oops. Post edited to included URL.

Bill Peschel said...

I'm a longtime copy editor and writer, so I side with the writer.

Newspaper stories are owned by the newspaper, and we can do what we want with them (like make sure the facts are reasonably correct and not libelous).

Works of fiction belong to the fucking writer. The editor can suggest, but the writer has the last word. It's a matter of style.

traditionalguy said...

Semicolon's Lives Matter is my new movement; although we are oppressed by the Punctuation Police; we will take over the world.

rhhardin said...

Eat; pray; love

Semicolons separate commands on a single line.

rhhardin said...

See?

$ date; date; date
Sat Sep 24 10:02:07 EDT 2016
Sat Sep 24 10:02:07 EDT 2016
Sat Sep 24 10:02:08 EDT 2016
$

Patrick said...

I think punctuation and grammar are important to clear writing, though I'm sue I make my share of mistakes. I've never once raised my voice over disagreements about them. Maybe I don't care enough.

Amexpat said...

He’s willing to spend an entire morning fighting over whether something should be a period or a semicolon
No wonder Caro has missed some of his deadlines by decades.

I'm a big fan of Caro, I've read all of his books, but Gottlieb could have done a better job of paring down Caro's books.

AllenS said...

Oftentimes, I'll start off my paragraph with an adverb, just so I can get a comma in right away.

tim in vermont said...

Through it all went the unending fuss and fret about commas. The New Yorker’s overuse of commas, originating in Ross’s clarification complex, has become notorious the world over among literary people. In Paris, in 1955, an English journalist said to me one night, ‘The biography of Ross should be called The Century of the Comma Man.’ A professor of English somewhere in England wrote me ten years ago a long, itemized complaint about the New Yorker comma, objecting to, among other things, its use after ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’, in which, he said, the comma is implicit.

He picked out this sentence in a New Yorker casual of mine: ‘After dinner, the men went into the living-room,’ and he wanted to know why I, or the editors, had put in the comma. I could explain that one all right. I wrote back that this particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.
-- The Years with Ross, James Thurber

James Pawlak said...

If, and only if the NYT has any residual of honesty, the publisher should change its masthaed to: "Tell A Lie Often Enough And It Becomes The Truth".

Birches said...

Oxford comma forever!

I like semicolons too.

Bob Ellison said...

My 7th-grade English teacher taught us strict rules on the usage of commas and semicolons, and I still mostly follow those rules, but I have learned to break them.

She also taught us that the only acceptable use of a punctuation point was after a declarative sentence that begins with "how" or "what", as in "What a nice day!" or "How foolish of you!" She was a bit of a nut!

gilbar said...

shouldn't that read?
Oxford comma, forever!
or perhaps?
Oxford; comma forever!

Bob Ellison said...

Is John Kerry, a military vet and now Secretary of State, a semi-Colin?

Paddy O said...

One can have very precise grammar. One can be a great writer.

Rarely both.

Z said...

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES...Lynn Truss ...

But I agree....the writer should have the last say, unless the reader literally can't grasp the point unless there's a comma.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Re: the Oxford comma, I once helped my doctoral adviser edit his then-latest book. I was just a go-between between editor and author, putting corrections and emendations into text that I had put on my computer (he worked on a typewriter solely, in the mid-90s when this was happening and I think well beyond, likely still). His editor was a strong believer in the Oxford comma, and he was a strong disbeliever. In the end, he mostly lost: She held him to Oxford commas in the entire body of the work. But not in the title. Which was, and remains, "Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740-1780."

I confess that I heavily overuse semicolons; they make it easy to suggest linkages of ideas without saying precisely why or how they're linked. (Used one just now. See?) And I'm pro-Oxford comma, because it avoids confusions otherwise unavoidable. And semicolons are useful also for separating items in lists where there are internal commas. E.g.: "Our menu includes waffles; eggs, bacon, and hash; and pickled herring." (OK, the pickled herring comes from Megan McArdle's long-awaited Friday Food Post yesterday.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Paddy O, what do you mean by "very precise grammar"? Mine is "very precise," while being pretty atypical. As I said, I use semicolons (and parens, and dashes) over-much, and like to start sentences with "And" or "But," which makes them technically sentence fragments. (See comment just above.) Still, it's a consistent grammar, which I think is what matters most.

Am I a great writer? Obviously not. Yet I'm not sure Toni Morrison is, either.

Wilbur said...

Colons, semi-colons, hyphens, commas ... Bless 'em all.

Sebastian said...

If he only fought with Morrison about the commas, he was not as good an editor as he is made out to be.

HT said...

The story is that these could be the last two people - or however many - fighting over punctuation. Unlike Ann, I think it is a good fight. The real news is that there is still an editor...anywhere!

Fight on! Preserve the English language.

wholelottasplainin' said...

What a Battle of the Piss;ants!

rhhardin said...

Strong women. I've worked two women now who do morse code contests, Connie in OK and Sandra in TX. Nice fists too. 25wpm.

Where men are men and women are too.

David said...

Here's an exclamation point: Badgers 30, Michigan State 6.

HT said...

How many starters did MSU return?

clint said...

"James Pawlak said...
If, and only if the NYT has any residual of honesty, the publisher should change its masthaed to: "Tell A Lie Often Enough And It Becomes The Truth".

9/24/16, 9:39 AM"

You need an extra comma in there, if, and only if, you intend to make "if" and "only if" both refer to the NYT's honesty's residuum.

coupe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.